(Photo: REUTERS/Lucas Jackson)
Many communities along the East Coast were spared major damage from Hurricane Irene, but with millions still affected, pastors are stepping in to make sure the church doesn’t stay cooped up and instead makes an impact in the storm’s aftermath.
The impact that Irene had on churches this past weekend varies from one area to another. After the skies cleared and the seas began to calm along the shore, some pastors opened up to describe what Irene left behind and what they are doing to help.
The North Carolina Conference of The United Methodist Church always keeps a disaster response plan in place, allowing them to quickly organize and mobilize in case of an emergency.
"We're finding churches that had like steeples blown over, trees down in the yard, some of them have flooded basements. Some of the parsonages have been flooded to the point they can't be used. It's just sporadic throughout the conference,” said Bill Norton, the NC Conference's Director of Communications.
Norton spoke to The Christian Post Tuesday, saying that his conference is now gathering information on church members' needs and is responding by providing water, food, tarps (to cover up leaky roofs), and “flood buckets” that are filled with materials needed to clean houses that were damaged by flooding.
On Monday, he visited with a family that, during the storm, had spent a night in the attic of their one-story home, because flood waters had gotten too high on the ground level for them to stay put. They eventually had to be rescued by the fire department.
Many people, he says, are feeling “despair, rejection, almost giving up,” but the conference's emergency response teams are already making a difference.
Greenwood Hills Wesleyan Church in High Point, N.C., is located far enough away from the coast that it avoided any severe damage, but Pastor Scott Wheeler says they're not sitting idly by while those along the coast cope with the damage.
“We just started taking up donations within the church, and then some of the community started hearing about it, and so it just turned into something even bigger,” he told The Christian Post.
The church is collecting items like water, food, toothpaste and other necessities, which they will take to some of the needy coastal towns in North Carolina and possibly Virginia on Sunday. The church also has a food trailer from which they can cook and distribute food when they arrive.
The people from Wheeler's congregation are teaming up with another Wesleyan church for the project, and hope to take between 30 and 50 volunteers with them to lend a helping hand.
"The plan is just to go down there and try to do something to help those folks, especially those that were hit the hardest,” Wheeler said.
Moving up the coast to Virginia, Clayton Ritter, pastoral care director at Wave Church, says that the storm did very little damage to his church's facility.
“We got out pretty good. We lost power for maybe an hour, and then got it back, but we didn't have any major damage,” he said.
One of the church's five locations was displaced for the weekend, because they usually meet in a movie theater that was closed for the duration of the storm, but they simply joined the service at the church's Great Neck location in Virginia Beach.
Usually the Great Neck location offers three services on Sundays, but this past weekend they held only one so that congregants would have time to clean things up at home before returning to work on Monday.
Though there were no major incidents to report from within his congregation, Ritter added, “Our hearts and prayers are with those families who have lost loved ones.”
Even further north, Pastor Phil Erickson of Jersey Shore Baptist Church says, “We really didn't get it all that bad.”
He says that gusty winds downed trees and wires, and some flooding was the worst of the damage he had seen. Irene impacted New Jersey on Sunday morning, but a few members of Erickson's congregation still showed up for service.
“It was an inconvenience more than anything else,” he said.
"We were over-prepared for it, which I guess is a good thing,” he added. “It could've been a lot worse."
The overall impact of Irene was much less powerful than expected. Still, CNN Money reported on Monday that the cost in damages caused by the hurricane could total around $10 billion, not to mention the dozens of lives that were lost.
Pastor Wheeler says that now is the time for congregations to make a difference.
“[Jesus] didn't call us to stay cooped up in our building just to ourselves when there [are] needs all around us,” he said. “He wants us to take action."